Tain to Golspie
Updated: Jan 27, 2020
John o'Groats Trail - Day 3 - 23.3 miles - 'Shoreline'
I wake to the cries of seagulls and gold streaked above the Dornoch firth.
It has been two whole months since I heard gulls at dawn – in Barnstaple, where I left the Devon coast.
LeJog messes around with time. I'm not sure whether it's because every day is new – a break from routine – or because your interaction with the world reduces to walking pace, but everything has slowed down.
The pace of things – hurtling fast into middle age – suddenly and noticeably dipped the day I stepped onto the trail, as if a big RESET button had been pressed, and has continued at the same pace ever since – inadvertent slow living, one of the obsessions of our age, giving rise to trends like slow cooking, knitting and mindfulness; a protest against the ever-hastening pace of technological change.
LeJog has at times felt like a kids' summer holiday – weeks spreading into sunny infinity, so that now, nearly 80 days in, it is hard to believe that my last seaside walks were part of this same journey – nor that they were only a few weeks back.
Today the John o'Groats Trail finally flexed its muscles.
After two days almost exclusively treading tarmac it abandoned cross-country roads for a joyous tour of the coast. The walk demanded more, but it delivered more too, with an engaging mix of woodland, beach and lochside scenery that was given added drama by the weather, stormclouds brewing inland while the sun shone on bucket-and-spade holidaymakers.
The day begins before nine on the A9.
It’s the only part of the walk which deviates from the semi-official JoG Trail, but I’m keen to experience the full force of the A9 so I know what I'm in for if I need to abandon the JoG Trail further north.
As it is, I’m off to such an early start that there’s barely anyone about. Before I know it I’ve passed the world-famous Glenmorangie Distillery (there's nothing to see from the road) and am over the Dornoch Firth Bridge, where the JoG way jumps over the roadside crash barrier and climbs down an embankment to scale a barbed-wire fence.
It’s a taste of things to come: there’s a feeling of rough-and-ready adventure about the JoG Trail which is a novelty after the cosseted Great Glen and West Highland Ways.
Within minutes the road’s left behind and I’m walking along the Cuthill Sands foreshore in the company of oystercatchers and terns. A short stroll through Camore Woods leads to Dornoch, with its handsome cathedral, palace and castle, and its world-c
lass Links. I'm making such good time I stop for tea and enjoy the fact that for the first time since I left Inverness the walk is proving not just interesting, but fun.
As stormclouds bubble up inland the JoG Trail hits the beach, crossing the Dornoch Links for three miles along the golden sands to Embo. Despite the ominous clouds, there's barely a swell on the sea, waves breaking as gentle ripples to delight the few families making the most of the fickle sun.
The terrain changes again north of the holiday camp at Embo. Here a narrow gorse-lined path follows the route of the Dornoch Light Railway – dismantled in the 1960s. It must have made for a beautiful trip, through the dunes and along the sea, and would make for a wonderful restoration project or cycle trail were it not for the fact that much of the rote has been tarmacced to give wildlife-watching bus groups a front row seat to enjoy Loch Fleet.
The tidal loch – an important nature reserve – is home to dozens of species of wading birds and a resident harbour seal population. At least mounting the verge every other minute to make way for yet another coach party offered opportunities not only to enjoy the dramatic views of the sea loch, backed by the rising heights of Ben Tarvie and Cnoc Odhar, but also to watch seals sunning themselves on the sandbanks.
At the junction with the A9 the JoG Trail gives you an option to stick on the pathless foreshore. It meant wet feet, but it was a no brainer, slurping through the mud and jumping over little tidal streams. Estuary mudflats are not a terrain I walk often, and I started with tentative steps. But the mud was firm and the scenery getting better all the time.
On the far side of Loch Fleet crossing point The Mound the JoG Trail instructions are to leave the A9 and head southeast into the woods 'when you see the white marker'.
I wander along the rubbly A9 hard shoulder in anxious anticipation. What happens if the paint's faded? Or I miss the marker?
But there it is – at the entrance to a little pathway through the gorse. My first confirmation that the Jog Trail actually is a trail.
I enter the hidden way, feeling as if I'm following a secret passage. Soon after, in an old pocket of woodland so cloaked in lichen it looks like a winter wood, the white paintmarks become more regular, weaving a trail through gnarled old Caledonian pines.
Just after Pinegrove Cottage – and, typically as the threatened rain finally starts to fall – the Trail disappears. There's been no paintmarks for a while and the route I've plotted is not evident on the ground. I enact a brief tactical retreat, adding a hundred or so metres of A9 plodding to the day. But it's a rare JoG Trail misstep; overall I'm feeling in good hands.
In a day punctuated by stretches of forestry, it's Balblair Wood next, a monoculture of Scots pines that offers views for miles under the branchless canopy.
And then, too soon, it's over. An amble along Golspie Links – breaks of blue in the still bubbling clouds making for yet more fun photos – and I reach Golspie, a fishing village overlooked by the 100 foot tall hillside statue of the first Duke of Sutherland, that has been on my horizon all day.
Golspie is a one-street town.
But it’s a relatively large town, so it’s a long street, boasting lots of beautiful old fishing cottages and red brick houses which, it turns out, I am going to become very familiar with during my overnight stay.
I don’t ask much for my end of day meal. The primary consideration is that I don’t have to work too hard to get it. Ideally it’s downstairs. Failing that, within a five minute walk is fine. Fifteen’s pushing it – that’s adding a mile or so to a day when the walk is over and done. Which makes tonight’s hour long quest for food absurd.
The B&B owner recommends the fish restaurant. Failing that, the Indian restaurant.
I go to the fish restaurant first. I check out the menu. The veg option is a battered veggie burger. Which sounds grim.
So I continue my search for the Indian.
I walk all the way to the other end of Golspie's long high street, frustrated by the fact that not only have I clocked up 23 miles in walking boots, I am now clocking up an additional two – and counting – in flip flops.
I get to the end of the village. No sign of the Indian restaurant. And the Chinese is closed on Mondays.
So I retrace my steps along the high street.
Of the two pubs I pass one has closed down and the other doesn’t serve food.
Sod it, I think, I’ll have the battered veg burger.
I return to the fish restaurant. Do they have a table?
No. But I can sit outside if I want.
There's a reason no-one else is sitting outside; it's raining.
Thanks, but I'll pass. Do they have any other suggestions?
“What about The Ben Bhraggie Hotel? Did you try that?”
No. Where is it?”
They explain. It's back where I’ve come from.
So I return for the second time… along Golspie’s long high street.
A few hundred metres beyond where I got to previously I find The Ben Bhraggie Hotel. There’s a sign outside saying: “WE ARE OPEN FOR FOOD".
I go in and am about to sit down when a waitress stops me. “Hiya. Are you here for Mystic Maggie?”
“Err... No. Food.”
“Oh sorry. We don't serve food when Mystic Maggie's in town.”
Of course. "Can you recommend anywhere else?”
She thinks. “Have you tried the fish restaurant?”
“Yes. They didn’t have any room.”
Another waitress has been listening in. “What about the Golspie Inn?”
“Five minutes up the road.”
Another five minutes up the longest high street in the Highlands.
So I continue out of town and find – eventually, and an hour after leaving my B&B – the Golspie Inn, which îs serving food. But it’s vegetarian menu is stuck in the 1980s. There’s mushroom stroganoff and, for the starch-starved, macaroni cheese, chips and garlic bread.
I half toy with the mac and cheese, but a meal that is uniformly yellow doesn’t feel like the kind of thing that’ll keep my body plodding to the end.
So I ask for the stroganoff.
“I’m sorry,” says the waitress. “We just sold our last stroganoff.”